The British Society For Research On Ageing
Founded sometime before 1939, The British Society for Research on Ageing (BSRA) is the oldest learned society in the world devoted to the study of the fundamental biology of the ageing process. The society’s mission is to increase our scientific knowledge of the processes, causes and effects of ageing and to develop means for counteracting them. Here, we have had the opportunity to speak with Professor Richard Faragher, Chair of BSRA’s Scientific Advisory board. Over the next few pages, Professor Faragher tells us all about the organisation’s activities in promoting age-related research in the UK and further afield.
Please tell us about the many ways that the BSRA supports agerelated research?
We are members of the Association of Medical Research Charites. Thus, we have an independent scientific advisory board which includes some of the most respected biological gerontologists in the world, but which also has an informed lay membership. We also have a development committee which includes representatives from academia and older people’s organisations together with philanthropists who give their time voluntarily to assist us.
For many years, we have awarded small travel grants to promising students as well as prizes for the best scientific presentations. Our Korenchevsky Award (named for our founder) allows a researcher to present at the Annual Scientific Meeting of our partner organisation, the American Aging Association. We also honour prominent gerontologists through the award of our Lord Cohen of Birkenhead Medal, which we believe is the longest standing award for gerontology in the UK.
Recently we have begun to award larger grants, notably PhD studentships. This has been occasioned by our recognition that there are limited routes by which a donor wishing to fund research in the biology of ageing could be assured of supporting the highest quality research, as well as the decline in support for charitable funding for biogerontology that has occurred in recent years.
How exactly do you define ageing? Why is it that humans, and the vast majority of other animals, have evolved to have a finite life span, whilst others don’t, such as the Turritopsis dohrnii (the immortal jellyfish)?
Ageing, in a population of organisms, is simply an exponential increase in death with increasing time. Ageing is not programmed, in the sense that no genes appear to have evolved purely to cause it – they are doing something else. It is the result of selection for early life fecundity. Non-ageing organisms can exist but they are relatively rare and have probably evolved as a result of evolutionary niches in which the advantages of early life fecundity are significantly reduced.
As our knowledge of the biological basis behind ageing is ever increasing, do you think that someday it may be possible to prevent ageing from happening altogether? If so, what would the ethical ramifications be?
This is an area marked by confusion and poor definitions. Journalists and some ethicists frequently worry about the ethical validity of immortality. But immortality is not a state that humans can realistically be expected to achieve. Indeed, one of our Cohen Medalists has described speculation in this area as ‘the ethics of never never land’.
A finite, but lengthened lifespan poses no ethical questions that do not already exist. The only ethical question that could meaningfully arise would occur if the extension of lifespan were coupled to poor health. There is no evidence that this situation has to occur.
Because of this confusion, biogerontologists prefer to keep the focus on their primary goal which is the improvement of health in later life.
What are currently the most promising treatments being developed to increase vitality into old age and to increase longevity?
The most exciting scientific breakthroughs of the last ten years have been the discovery that the drug rapamycin improves multiple aspects of later life health leading to significant extensions in the lifespan of multiple species. Pilot studies are already being conducted in older humans using drugs similar to rapamycin with the goal of improving immune function in later life.
In mammals, it has now been demonstrated that senescent cells are primary causal agents of ageing and attempts are being made to produce drugs that can remove them or block their effects.
The very diversity of ageing research means that there are multiple areas in which health, and thus longevity, can potentially be improved. For example, many of the genetic pathways that dictate physical fitness also overlap with cardiovascular health an ageing. Thus, the potential exists that existing drugs could be repurposed to improve the quality of life of older people.
Finally, can you please share your thoughts on the future of ageing research in the UK, and the ongoing role of the BSRA in that future?
Relative to the scale of the problem, funding for every aspect of ageing research falls far short of what is required in the UK today. This, ultimately, is a funding gap that the British government should seek to address, or at a minimum urgently review. However, we are living in a time when small amounts of philanthropic funding, judiciously placed, could achieve significant things. The BSRA will do today what it has always done, make the case for the science of ageing and the health of older people, both here and throughout the world.